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We Need to Begin Nation-Building in Syria Right Now

If we want to avoid the mistakes we made in Iraq

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Winston Churchill once famously said that, “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, but only after they have exhausted all of the alternatives.” He could have been speaking of the Obama administration’s Middle East policy.

For six years I have criticized the administration’s policies toward Iraq, Syria, and the wider Middle East (mostly excepting its Iran policy). But since the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State in June, at least where Iraq and Syria are concerned, I can find little to criticize and much to praise. The administration has reversed course in both countries, shifting from stubborn disengagement to smart leadership. Since the stunning ISIS offensive in Iraq in June, Washington’s moves have been uncharacteristically deft: promising greater military support to Iraq as leverage to effect political change there; providing air support and weapons to the Kurds to halt the ISIS offensive; launching a sustained air campaign against ISIS operations in Iraq and Syria; and deploying advisors and weapons to Iraq, to name a few.

The administration's new approach has resulted in several important developments. Nouri al-Maliki was forced to step down as prime minister of Iraq. That country has a new, more inclusive government that's committed both to fighting ISIS and accommodating the demands of its alienated Sunni community. Humanitarian tragedies have been averted at Mount Sinjar and Amerli. ISIS has been driven back from Mosul Dam and the approaches to Erbil. And many of the states of the region have signed on to the U.S.-led effort.

These are merely first steps in the right direction, but that in itself is an important achievement. When Mosul fell, the Middle East was plummeting into chaos. Today, at least in some key areas, it has started to pull out of that nosedive—even if it has not yet started to gain altitude. But there is one piece of the strategy that the Obama administration has not articulated and does not yet seem to be preparing for.

We must also start gearing up for nation-building, particularly in Syria.

Both Iraq and Syria are classic intercommunal civil wars. ISIS is the symptom of that underlying problem, not the problem itself. And unless we stabilize both countries and end the civil wars there, we will never be rid of ISIS or the other threats to our interests in Syria and Iraq. As we have learned from both our successes and failures, healing civil wars requires a long-term process of nation-building. There is no way around that.

In Iraq, the framework of such a process is already in place, left over from the successful period of 2008-2010. Moreover, much of Washington’s heavy lifting already has been about how to get Iraq’s political leadership back on the path toward the stability and political functionality that were created back then. There are still many hurdles, and doing so will take a great deal of effort and luck, but it is of a different category entirely than what needs to be done in Syria.

Indeed, Obama himself recognized this unavoidable reality in his interview with Tom Friedman of The New York Times in August. The president said he learned from the Libyan strikes in 2011 that military intervention that was not backed by a major effort to build a functional state afterward would lead to chaos and new threats to American interests. In the interview, Obama seemed to be imply that this was one reason he didn't want to intervene in Syria: because he was not ready to commit to such a program for Syria.

Well, the president has now committed to just such an intervention in Syria. Having done so, ensuring that the intervention turns out well—and does not create more problems than it solves—means that he is also going to have to commit to nation-building there.

It is certainly understandable why Obama would be reluctant to admit this to the American people (although hopefully not to himself). After all, as he has endlessly reminded us, he believes that he was elected to get the U.S. out of long-term commitments in the Middle East and to focus on nation-building at home. Now is the time to rise above those campaign slogans and do what is in the nation’s long-term strategic interests.

That said, this is where being Barack Obama, not George W. Bush, could prove useful. When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, the Bush administration was just as determined not to nation-build there. In public, in the lead-up to the invasion, they regularly downplayed or even ignored the need for a long-term commitment to nation-building. Behind the scenes, they did virtually nothing to plan or prepare for it. After the invasion, when all hell started to break loose, they were forced to acknowledge that they had to rebuild Iraq before they could leave. But at that point, they had nothing to work with. This led to panic and a series of ill-conceived, ad hoc decisions in 2003-2005 that made an unimaginable hash out of Iraq and caused the Iraqi civil war of 2006-2008.

To be fair, Bush did eventually realize that he needed to do real nation-building in Iraq. That is what underlay what we now call "The Surge" in Iraq, and which did turn the country around in dramatic fashion, although the damage done from the mistakes of 2003-2005 meant that Iraq was far more fragile and its progress much more tentative than it otherwise might have been.

In Syria today, Obama needs to do better than Bush did. As General Martin Dempsey has indicated, it will be at least a year and perhaps longer before new Syrian opposition army formations are ready to take the fight into Syria and begin to secure territory and people. But the moment that they do so, the reconstruction has to begin. There needs to be a political element ready to govern—and to start the long process of building a new Syrian political system—and mechanisms in place to provide food, medical care, and everything else for the civilian population. That will require a great deal of planning—planning that needs to start long before the first Syrian opposition ground forces cross the Syrian border. In fact, it needs to start now. By way of comparison, the United States began planning for the post-World War II reconstruction of Germany and Japan in 1942, and that was an important aspect of their success.

Another critical mistake Bush made in Iraq was trying to run the whole reconstruction effort. Obama needs to avoid that in Syria, and instead bring other countries on board for the rebuilding as he has already for the take-down. There is no reason that the reconstruction of Syria should cost as much as the reconstruction of Iraq, if it is done properly. And there is no reason that the United States should have to shoulder as much of the costs of nation-building in Syria as it did in Iraq. The Gulf states have repeatedly offered to foot most, or even all, of the bill for Syria. We should take them up on that offer, but doing so is going to mean coordinating with them right from the get go.

Still another of the Bush administration’s endless mistakes in Iraq was to diminish the role of the United Nations and other international organizations, and to insist on running things their way. That discouraged many states, organizations, and personnel from participating in the reconstruction of Iraq—players with badly needed skills, experience, and capabilities. Again, this time around, Obama needs to do better. He should request that the UN secretary general appoint a special representative to lead the reconstruction of Syria. That person would eventually have Syrian sovereignty vested in him or her and would serve as the political decision-maker for Syria, while presiding over a multi-year process to build a new Syrian political system from the bottom up. That too is a critical lesson from past efforts at nation-building from Haiti to Cambodia to Bosnia to Iraq. Conducting the diplomacy, picking the right people, planning and organizing the mission, and then putting in place all of the necessary supplies will be a major operation and it too needs to start now, long before the ground campaign can begin.

If all of this is addressed in a determined fashion, the U.S. should provide most of the muscle, the Gulf states most of the money, and the international community most of the know-how. That could only result in a far better and cheaper experience of nation-building in Syria than was ever the case in Iraq. But there’s no time to waste, and that will mean that Obama needs to level with the American people right now: Nation-building in Syria is essential not just for the Middle East, but the United States too.